Obituary: Callum Macdonald

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The Independent Culture
IN 20-odd years after the Second World War, Scottish literary culture went through a curious agony. The last firms representing the great era when Edinburgh had vied with London as a publishing centre still had headquarters in the city, where a stupendous International Festival of the arts was launched in 1947. But Scottish writers of poetry and serious fiction were paupers at the feast. "Lallans verse" was the butt of facetious London literati. The great MacDiarmid was alive and fulminating, but his poetry was only scantly in print. In a review article in New Saltire, a typically short-lived periodical, printed in 1961, Edwin Morgan asked, "When are the leading Scottish publishers going to do something about modern Scottish poetry?"

He went on to notice three pamphlets self-published from Edinburgh addresses - and two items produced by M. Macdonald, printer and publisher, in that city. He praised "Malcolm" Macdonald for his struggle "to keep Scottish poetry in print".

A potent mythological Gestalt shows us MacDiarmid, Norman MacCaig and Sydney Goodsir Smith smoking away together over many whiskies in Milne's Bar at the intersection of Rose Street and Hanover Street in the centre of Edinburgh and somehow creating the waves which buoyed up a Literary Renaissance. It is true that Robert Garioch was usually present, and that Tom Scott, George Mackay Brown and Alan Bold did join them on occasion, though in fact MacDiarmid was rarely in town and the others were as likely to be in the Abbotsford. It is also true that Callum Macdonald would often quietly be of the company.

It was he who persuaded MacCaig to cease to be "McCaig". He published Iain Crichton Smith's first slim volume of poems, then, decades later, the collected poems of Garioch, and of his fellow Gael Derick Thomson. When he set up Lines Review in 1952, MacDiarmid, Sorley MacLean, MacCaig and Goodsir Smith were on his editorial board.

But the first editor of Lines was Alan Riddell, an Australian Scot recently associated with Alexander Trocchi in founding the avant-garde, internationalist magazine Merlin in Paris. That orbited with Beckett and Neruda. Macdonald's outlook was never parochial. He was a man of wide vision, not a Milne's Bar groupie. A reserved, dignified Gael, he stood, fag and glass in hand, on the verge of many a literary gathering, where, with his immaculate suit and tie, he might have passed for a modest Highland draper accidentally present, but was actually a subject of awe among those who knew how devoutly he had obeyed his ruling passion for poetry, so that, while he was a shy man himself, others felt shy in his presence.

Behind his courteous mien was a spirit which stood for no half measures. He worked ferociously hard himself and demanded equal commitment from others. Incorrigibly generous, he could not thole the sight of anyone's empty glass. He despised filter-tip cigarettes and stuck with high-tar Virginia. Trevor Royle, a distinguished editor of Lines in the Eighties, recalls how packages from Macdonald Printers always announced their arrival with a strong whiff of tobacco.

Macdonald was born in 1912 on the island of Bernera, off the west coast of Lewis, and grew up in a Gaelic-speaking community. Because it produced so many ministers, his branch of Clan Donald was nicknamed "Knox". Throughout his life, "Callum Knox" reread the Bible in Gaelic. Via the illustrious Nicolson Institute in Stornoway, he progressed to Edinburgh University, where he was an enthusiastic and talented student of history. He married Williamina ("Winnie") Ross, from Harris, in 1934, a union which produced six children.

Before the war, they lived in London, where Callum marketed lobsters for Highland fishermen. His war service in the RAF, in which he rose to be Squadron Leader, took him to Iceland and Gibraltar. Afterwards, owning a stationer's shop in Edinburgh, he taught himself how to operate a Heidelberg Automatic Platen printing press by trial and error. He became a sizeable printer with scores of notable clients, ranging from the rather likely National Library of Scotland to the almost implausible Scottish Widows and Standard Life.

Macdonald Printers - the last of his many "retirements" from the business was as late as 1997 - subsidised his publishing ventures. Profit was certainly not the point of these. Though page layout was exemplary, cover design was austerely basic. But the books earned him honour - a special Scottish Arts Council Award in 1972, an exhibition at the National Library of Scotland in 1987, an MBE "for services to Scottish literary publishing" in 1992. And his vision, it may be said, was fulfilled.

In 1984, Tessa Ransford set up the Scottish Poetry Library. Winnie died in 1986 and three years later Tessa became Callum's second wife. She was also the 10th and last editor of Lines Review. When they finally laid the magazine to rest in 1998, it had published most significant Scottish poets of its day, many useful writers in English from other countries (a late issue, for instance, was devoted to verse from India) and much poetry in translation. The Poetry Library is about to move to custom-built new premises bang next door to the site of the brand-new Scottish Parliament. It is a shame that Callum died before he could see either, but good that he knew that their arrival was certain.

Lines ended with issue 144. In the Seventies, new outlets for verse were born with similar durability. Chapman is approaching its 100th issue, Cencrastus is well past its 50th. Regional magazines of good standard have proliferated. After the great 19th-century tradition of Scottish publishing stuttered to a complete halt in the Sixties, new imprints of distinction gradually emerged - Canongate, Polygon. There are now five publishers operating in Edinburgh with good lists of new books of poetry. It is most unlikely that any fresh poet of great talent will fail to achieve the decisive first slim volume. The dearth of the Fifties and Sixties must seem almost inconceivable to people who weren't alive at the time.

The day Callum Macdonald died, Christopher Harvie was launching his latest collection of essays about Scotland in Thin's Bookshop, by Edinburgh University. After his speech was finished, an assistant stepped forward with a telephone message from Tessa, apologising for her absence and explaining why. Harvie called for a minute's silence. Then more wine was poured and conversation flowed, as Callum would surely have wished.

Perhaps some of that throng, politicoes and historians, were not aware of his contribution. But the small burn which sprang from Callum Macdonald's friendship with MacDiarmid and Goodsir Smith has swollen and has joined and fed the substantial river which has carried us to the Holyrood Parliament and towards a millennium which in Scotland, so to speak, will be rather peculiarly "new".

Angus Calder

Malcolm (Callum) Macdonald, printer and publisher: born Breaclete, Isle of Bernera 4 May 1912; MBE 1992; married 1934 Winnie Ross (died 1986; three sons, two daughters, and one daughter deceased), 1989 Tessa Ransford; died Peebles 24 February 1999.